Regional Roundup for Week of 12.20.13

Major headlines this week included strong statements from both the U.S. State Department and Asian NGOs regarding the anniversary of the disappearance of Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone December 15. China became the third country to land a lunar probe, and the first country in 37 years. Tensions remained high in Thailand, as protesters rejected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s proposal for new elections.


Full text of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on Sombath’s disappearance —  The United States remains deeply concerned over the fate of Sombath Somphone, one of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s most respected civil society figures, on the one-year anniversary of his abduction. Sombath was abducted on the evening of December 15, 2012, from a Lao police checkpoint in Vientiane. This deplorable event was recorded on Lao Government surveillance cameras. Our thoughts are with Sombath’s family, friends, and the countless others in the international community who have been inspired by Sombath’s exemplary leadership and devotion to his country.

Joint statement posted by International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) by 62 international NGOs on Sombath’s disappearance —  We, the undersigned 62 regional and international organizations, express outrage over the Lao Government’s ongoing failure to shed light on the enforced disappearance of prominent activist and civil society leader Sombath Somphone. December 15, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance. Sombath was last seen on the evening of December 15, 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. This fact supports a finding of government complicity.

Obama to Nominate Max Baucus as US China Ambassador | The Diplomat — The move signals that the Obama administration will seek to focus on America’s economic relationship with China as the latter attempts to rebalance its economy to give greater weight to domestic consumption. Baucus is the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He is currently serving in his sixth term as a senator from Montana but announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection in 2014.

Lawlessness in Borderlands Taints Myanmar’s Progress | NYT — TACHILEIK, Myanmar — The verdant fairways of the golf course outside this northeastern city in Myanmar might suggest a measure of normalcy and tranquillity — except for the handguns that some of the golfers wear. In a region known for rival ethnic armies and drug-trafficking gangs, many officials find it prudent to carry sidearms even as they play 18 holes. In the city, which sits along the border with Thailand, a picture of barely controlled lawlessness emerges, with at least eight ethnic militias patrolling the streets in different uniforms.

Yunnan Reopens 13 International Border Crossings | GoKunming — Eight years ago, China suspended several overland border crossings into neighboring countries. As of this week, thirteen of those once-popular waypoints have reopened in efforts to increase trade and boost international tourismPeople’s Daily is reporting.

In numbers: Something’s fishy | SEA Globe —  Stating that fish are a fixture of Southeast Asian life would be understating their importance to a huge degree. Our aquatic friends are everywhere. They are seen flapping about in ponds, drying out in the sun and being chopped up and added to many a main meal. Whole communities rely on the income generated by bringing in a good catch, while middlemen ramp up their prices when supplying high-end eateries with choice varieties of seafood. Fish is big business here.

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Saving Indonesia’s fisheries: Plenty more fish in the sea? | The Economist — Alor is at the centre of the “coral triangle”, 6m square kilometres of the most biodiverse oceans on earth. These waters contain two-thirds of the world’s coral species, twice the number of species of reef fish found anywhere else, and new species that are still being discovered by scientists in Indonesia. But climate change and warming oceans, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, along with pollution from coastal communities and industries, threaten the fragile ecosystems that support underwater life, as well as millions of traditional fishermen.


China Celebrates Lunar Probe and Announces Return Plans | NYT — China’s plan to send an unmanned craft to the moon in 2017 that will land and return with samples suggests that the country will continue the rapid pace of its space program.

Amid China’s Bad Air, a Reminder That Smoking Still Kills | NYT — China has about 350 million smokers, and despite efforts to reduce consumption, tobacco is still widely consumed with about half of adult males smoking regularly, according to surveys.

Fines Won’t Solve China’s Smog Problem | ChinaFile — Eight municipal governments in northeast Liaoning province have together received 54.2 million yuan (U.S.$8.9 million) in fines for failing to reach air quality standards—the first time a provincial government has imposed financial penalties on lower-level governments for pollution. “Something is better than nothing. A meaningful fine is a step in the right direction,” commented Steve Tsang, the Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. Nevertheless, Professor Tsang said that if the fine is modest compared to the cost saving involved in polluting, the effect of the fine will be minimal.

Africa and the Chinese Way | NYT — Beijing has signed off on rail projects across the continent, from Angola in the South, Ethiopia in the East and Nigeria in the West, heralding an infrastructure-expansion boom on a scale never seen in Africa.

Available online: Dead but not buried | The Economist — What people used to say of Harrods, a London department store, they now say of Taobao, an online Chinese retail platform: you can buy anything there. Perhaps hoping to prove the point, one company recently placed plastinated human bodies (preserved in polymers) for sale on Taobao. The company, which is asking 126,500 yuan ($21,000) per cadaver, says it is targeting medical schools and scientists, but it requires no documentation and will ship the corpse to your door (within China).

Rural Women Stage Innovative Protest for Equality | NYT — The middle-aged farming women forming a human pyramid in front of the Zhejiang Provincial People’s Government headquarters in Hangzhou last week constituted a small protest that pointed to a big problem: persistent economic and political discrimination against women in rural China, they said.

Bitcoin Value Sinks After Chinese Exchange Move | NYT — China’s biggest Bitcoin exchange was forced to stop accepting deposits in the Chinese currency on Wednesday, sending the price of the virtual money tumbling in one of its biggest markets globally. The development comes less than two weeks after China’s central bank and four other government agencies that regulate finance and technology issued a joint announcement banning Chinese financial institutions from dealing in the virtual currency.

Foreign correspondents: Personae non gratae | The Economist — The Chinese government has many ways of making life difficult for foreign journalists, but it usually does so without attracting many headlines. That is beginning to change: authorities have halted the annual visa-renewal process for at least two dozen journalists working for American media, after they wrote stories about the wealth accumulated by the families of China’s leaders. The journalists, from the New York Times and Bloomberg, a financial-news service, face being forced out of China when their visas expire this month. A mass expulsion of foreign journalists would be the first since the reform era began.

Welcome to Tchotchke Town | NYT — If it’s small, cheap and made of plastic, it can probably be found in Yiwu, a city in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The marketplace there, called China Commodity City, claims to be the world’s largest wholesale market for small goods, and its sprawling buildings house vast quantities of mass-produced trinkets — crafts, Christmas trees, Barbie-doll knockoffs — that are exported from there to hundreds of locations abroad.


Vietnam, the US, and China: A Love Triangle? | The Diplomat — Beijing often accuses the U.S. of attempting to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. While the U.S. may not be actively trying to turn countries against China, it’s definitely true that the U.S. has reaped the benefits of other countries’ ambivalence toward the rising power. The U.S. has been able to capitalize on mixed feelings towards China to deepen its relations with ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular.

Thai Retailer and Chinese Supermarket End Merger Attempt | NYT — A proposed $745 million tie-up between the Chinese supermarket operator Wumart Stores and C.P. Lotus, a retailer in China controlled by the Thai billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont, has fallen apart after the two sides failed to agree on final terms of the deal, both companies said Monday.

U.S. Forging Closer Military Ties With Philippines | NYT — Secretary of State John Kerry said here on Tuesday that the United States would give the Philippines $40 million in maritime security assistance and was negotiating with Manila to rotate more American military forces through the country, the latest signs of the Obama administration’s concerns about mounting pressure from China on its neighbors.

The Senkaku Islands as Cold War Berlin | The Diplomat — The similarities between Berlin during the early Cold War and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island dispute today seem obvious. To begin with, the crisis has its roots in the shortcomings of the post-WWII agreements. While the San Francisco Treaty demanded that Tokyo return all the territories it had conquered, it did not explicitly name which territories these were. The fact that the U.S. maintained control over the Senkakus during the occupation period suggests that Washington did view these islands as falling under the rubric of territories that Japan had conquered. Obviously, China would disagree.


Disputed Statue to Be Returned to Cambodia | NYT — An ancient statue of a Hindu warrior, pulled from auction two years ago because of assertions that it had been looted from a temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia, will be returned to that country under an agreement signed on Thursday by Sotheby’s, its client and federal officials.

Cambodia’s garment workers needled by low wages and poor conditions | The Guardian —  Growing discontent among workers generating huge profits for scant return threatens to derail Cambodia’s garment industry. Cambodia’s garment industry is now worth $1.5bn, employing almost 400,000 workers – 90% of them young women – in more than 400 factories nationwide. The country has a reputation for fair treatment of workers, based on its labour laws, the presence of workers’ unions and a minimum wage. Most of the garment companies are contract manufacturers for overseas firms. However, according to David Welsh, Cambodia programme director for the Solidarity Centre, employees are becoming increasingly agitated that they are not profiting fairly from the spoils of their work.


To catch a queen | SEA Globe — Recent corruption scandals have ignited the debate about dynastic politics in Indonesia. But even experts are unsure of how to address this world of clandestine meetings and mystical martial-arts clans. Clan politics hold sway in dozens of Indonesia’s provinces and regencies. Siblings and spouses trade posts to skirt term limits; parents purchase elections for their children; cousins and in-laws follow their brethren into office. “They use their money and power to mobilise the people,” said Jacklevyn Manuputty, a peace activist from Maluku province.

Indonesian Cave Gives Researchers a Glimpse of Tsunami History | The Diplomat — Deep inside a limestone cave on the Sumatran coast, a team of researchers have unearthed a natural timeline of the biggest tsunamis to hit the region over the last 7,500 years. They hope that the discovery will shed light on the frequency of major disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that left more than 200,000 dead in 14 countries.


Concerns in Laos That Burma’s Opening Could Slow Tourism Growth | The Irrawaddy — Businesses in Laos, itself a nascent tourist draw, are concerned that growth in the sector could be stalled by Burma’s recent opening-up, which could see some visitors opting for one country over the other when planning holidays.

Missing Sombath Still Dogging Laos | The Diplomat — Just over a year ago, community development worker Sombath Somphone was plucked from the streets of Vientiane by police. He has not been heard of since, despite overwhelming evidence linking his disappearance to the government and its dictatorial internal security apparatus. Sombath’s disappearance has ensured human rights groups like Amnesty and HRW will be paying much closer attention to the country’s human rights record while pushing for more information on his whereabouts.


Burma frees 41 political detainees | The Guardian — Release leaves another 40 in prison with 230 still facing charges, according to campaign group. Burma has freed 41 political detainees, a government spokesman said, bringing the country close to fulfilling a pledge by President Thein Sein to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of the year. Their release leaves about 40 political detainees in prison, according to estimates by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The organisation said another 230 people still face charges over their political activities.

Myanmar’s Big Sister Leads in HIV Fight | The Diplomat  — An organization formed by sex workers for sex workers is making strides in reducing the rate of infections. Myanmar may have grabbed the world’s eye by opening its borders and ushering in a foreign investment surge, but one story has slipped quietly under the radar. The country has also significantly reduced the rate of HIV infections in its sex worker population from its previous high of 40 percent in females 2005, according to Population Services International (PSI) down to less than 10 percent today.



The Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan: The winds of change | The Economist — A month after Haiyan, the other worst-affected coastal areas remain desolate. Much of the land around Tacloban, the town that bore the brunt of the storm surge, resembles old photographs of a first-world-war battlefield: hundreds of broken trees; craters of mud and debris where houses once stood; upended cars and vans.

US announces further $25m aid to Philippines after typhoon Haiyan | The Guardian — The US is to provide nearly $25m (£15.2m) in additional humanitarian aid to help the Philippines deal with the devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan last month, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said after touring the worst-hit region. Kerry flew to central Tacloban city, where he visited a food distribution centre and talked with officials and survivors. The new food aid, shelter materials, water and other supplies he announced bring the total US assistance package to $86m for one of its closest Asian allies.


Singapore: Trouble in Little India | The Economist — THEIR impeccable city is supposed to be so law-abiding that policemen are rarely seen on patrol. Imagine the shock, then, when Singaporeans woke up on December 9th to learn of running street battles in the city centre the night before. Singapore had not seen a riot since 1969.



News Analysis: In Thailand, Standing Up for Less Democracy | NYT — In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

Trial of an Ex-Premier Raises Tensions in Thailand Further | NYT — Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister, was charged Thursday in a Bangkok criminal court with premeditated murder in a case connected to a military crackdown on protesters in 2010. Mr. Abhisit was released on bail and is not due to appear in court again until March, but the case has raised political tensions in the country amid a new round of protests in Bangkok.

Bangkok Shopping Mall Is Instagram’s Most Photographed Location for 2013 | The Diplomat —  Instagram, a Facebook-owned photo sharing app boasting more than 150 million monthly active users, recently shared its third annual top ten list of the most photographed places in 2013. In a world full of natural and man-made wonders, like the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China, it might come as a surprise that 2013’s top location was a monument to consumerism – the Siam Paragon shopping and entertainment complex in the heart of Bangkok.


To Lower Tariffs, Vietnam Pushes for Easing Trade Rules | NYT — Executives from companies that own brands like Nike, Levi’s and Zara gathered here last month in a hearing room operated by the European government, for a public briefing on the status of trade talks between Vietnam and the European Union, which began last year. For clothing and shoe companies, the negotiations between Europe and Vietnam are being watched with especially close care. Part of the reason is Vietnam’s role as an assembly line for much of the apparel worn in the Western world. Another is that Vietnam’s population also recently topped 90 million. Because the number of young people in the country is rapidly increasing, it has become an attractive growth market for apparel makers.

John Kerry returns to Vietnam to bolster US ties with south-east Asia | The Guardian —  Forty-four years after first setting foot in the country, as a young naval officer, John Kerry returned to Vietnam on Saturday, this time as America’s secretary of state, offering security assurances and seeking to promote democratic and economic reform. Making his 14th trip to the south-east Asian nation since the end of the war that profoundly influenced his political career and foreign policy thinking, Kerry is trying to bolster the remarkable rapprochement with a former US enemy that he encouraged and helped to engineer as a senator in the 1990s.

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